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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

'Sopranos,' Still Supreme

January 14, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Bada bleeping bing, it's back at last!

"The Sopranos," arguably the best reason to own a TV set, launches its long-awaited second batch of 13 episodes on HBO Sunday, facing epic competition.

From itself.

The shimmery luster of its first season created such soaring expectations that living up to them inevitably would be the biggest challenge facing this series from David Chase about a conflicted New Jersey mob boss and his crisis-ridden families on the home and crime fronts.

"The Sopranos" faced an uncertain reception in the new year. After that luminous first season, what if it were now merely . . . good? Those crowing about its greatness and grousing about it not getting enough Emmys last year--dey was robbed--would be devastated.

And so?

Whadda you, crazy? "The Sopranos" remains kick-ass magnificent. And James Gandolfini's brutal but complex Mafia chieftain, Tony Soprano, is as gloriously coarse and seductive as ever. He's as much a fascinating hybrid of incongruous tones and emotions, too, one moment touting the History Channel or again getting all gooey about ducks, the next authorizing murder or blowing his top and viciously battering someone who teed him off.

So much about Tony is big, from his stogie and his anger to his paper sacks full of cash and his girlfriend's exposed breasts. Yet it's subtlety, the delicately measured half-twists and shadings that Gandolfini gives him--acting that rises from within--that help make Tony a stunning anomaly and unique gangster study.

No wonder "The Sopranos" again excels as both popular entertainment and high art while bolstering its elite standing in a distinctly American crime-film genre with roots in the early 20th century.

Popular culture is fortunate to have it. Viewers are fortunate to have it. Some viewers, anyway.

How amazing that "The Sopranos" has built a deafening buzz despite being unavailable to much of the nation because it's on pay-cable HBO instead of ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox, where it was originally developed. If it were on one of them, however, it would be shackled in ways that would render it unrecognizable as "The Sopranos."

Sunday's big moments come immediately. Simply inspired is a wordless opening montage updating viewers on everyone's activities--from Tony's wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), in the kitchen to crude sexual activity--as Frank Sinatra sings "It Was a Very Good Year" in an elegantly reflective counterpoint.

The year is not turning out all that well for Tony.

He is still filled with seething while even more out of control and desperate for the therapy denied him by his former psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). She's now receiving patients in a cheesy motel room--and is herself seeing a psychiatrist (ex-director Peter Bogdanovich)--after hiding out from Tony's enemies because she knows too much.

Tony's cokeheaded, hotheaded thug of a nephew, Christopher (Michael Imperioli), is bored being in charge of the dishonest investment firm set up as one of his uncle's seemingly legit fronts, a position that he qualified for by having someone else take the stockbroker's exam using his name. Grade A brilliant.

Crime here remains a family business, even though Tony and his aging Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) are still deadly rivals. Although Junior is the titular head of the mob, Tony is the actual boss, and his uncle is still in the slammer after ordering a hit on him that backfired.

"I got nuthin' t'say t'you," Junior grunts, his eyes lowered through thick glasses, when Tony reluctantly visits him on business. The contempt is mutual, and Tony shoots back with trademark Soprano sarcasm: "So many tragedies and near tragedies t'dose close to you, huh?"

Tony also still despises his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), that ever-carping, self-pitying grand hag who in 1999 appeared to endorse Junior's plot to snuff her son. After experiencing stroke symptoms, she remains defiant and connected to oxygen, if not entirely to reality, in a hospital where Tony last season came this close to smothering her with a pillow.

"She's dead t'me," he snarls now when "the Dragon Lady" is mentioned.

*

Chase and his fine writers hardly have "The Sopranos" sluggishly wearing cement shoes in the murky depths of last season, though. Things are happening. Resurfacing after mysteriously vanishing in 1999 is Tony's once-trusted lieutenant "Big Pussy" (Vincent Pastore). "Talk to you?" he asks when showing up near Tony's doorstep. What is that all about?

Among several new pivotal characters is an import from Naples, who enters the series a bit later. Arriving from Seattle Sunday, causing Tony immediate grief, is his sister, Janice (Aida Turturro), a mid-30ish flower child who appears to be measuring Livia for some kind of nasty intrigue. As Livia measures her right back. The interaction among the pasty mother and two warring siblings is just incredible.

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